At a photo shoot in a cemetery, a model in a transparent purple fabric (that doesn’t appear to be an actual garment) walks past tombstones. She asks if she should climb on the graves. “No,” says Carine Roitfeld. “That would be disrespectful.” What may come off as an outtake of “Absolutely Fabulous” is from the feature-length documentary Mademoiselle C, which premieres next month during New York Fashion Week. (It will travel to London and Paris Fashion Weeks, injecting steroids into the bi-annual global trudge by the black-clad.) Fashion has always drawn derision for its perceived excess and superficiality, of course. But whether you’re a fashionista or non-com, Mademoiselle C offers insight into one of the most influential image-makers in the world.
Mademoiselle C is the fourth major documentary about that mysteriously glamorous occupation of fashion editor. (Its trailer was posted today.) The September Issue blew open the chilly doors of Anna Wintour’s Vogue. The Eye Has to Travel descended into the wacky world of former Vogue chief Diana Vreeland (“Who can think about pie when there’s Russia?”) And In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye revealed how some of the magazine’s most iconic shoots came about.
This final tent-pole in what the future will regard as the early 21st century obsession with Vogue figureheads, Mademoiselle C follows Roitfeld, who has styled some of Mario Testino’s best shoots, made a star of Tom Ford, and kept French fashion synonymous with sex. Like “Full Gallop”—the play about Diana Vreeland that starts with her dismissal from Vogue, Mademoiselle C finds the slim, youthful, yet pushing-60 Roitfeld at the end of a long stint as the head of French Vogue.
“I loved The September Issue,” Fabien Constant, Mademoiselle C‘s director, told me last month at a restaurant behind the Cafe de Flore. “That film is about a process, the very efficient machine that is American Vogue. My film is about the creation of a new magazine, a rebirth. I knew the Carine’s private life would be woven through her new magazine, because she puts her entire life and obsessions in her work. I could show the woman by what created.” He added, “I didn’t want to make a Wikipedia documentary on her.” So there’s little about Roitfeld’s childhood (Russian heritage, rich childhood), though we meet her children. (Son Vladimir, and artist, regrets that track suits were out of the question in his household). We briefly meet the man in her life, an art dealer whom she never married because she’s “superstitious,” having seen too many friends divorce.
The film stays mainly with the new creation. Stephen Gan, of V magazine, offers to back and run CR Fashion Book. Its mantra: “Fashion beyond clothes.” Anyone who has cracked a French Vogue, no stranger to cracks, will understand this two ways. Nudity is fashion for Roitfeld. What is distasteful is featuring advertisers’ product. Or so she claims. In the film she expresses dismay, rather than pride, when the first cover of CR Fashion Book bears an article of clothing by an advertiser.
You see Roitfeld literally sweat in Mademoiselle C—but that’s during a workout session, not when photographers refuse to work for her new mag for fear of losing Conde Nast contracts. She is too well connected, and well loved, to fall from grace. When told that CR Fashion Book is wildly over budget (think international shooting locations and private helicopter rides for the editrix), her response is a blank stare. Logistics are not what obsess a woman who relegates carrying of her handbag to an assistants.
“The idea to make a film with Carine came after I had followed her with a camera for a half-hour film on Fashion’s Night Out in Paris,” says Constant. “People were lined up at stores, and I realized it wasn’t for the shopping or the champagne–it was for Carine. I had to be her bodyguard that night.”
Constant, who has specialized in fashion-related films for French TV and companies such as L’Oreal, suggested to Roitfeld that they embark on a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Her departure from Vogue came after she had given consent for filming. So the parallel between this movie and The September Issue wasn’t intended.
Constant clearly loves his subject, and the feeling is mutual, judging from the access she gave him for some 220 hours of footage. (She didn’t require sign-off, however.) He tags along to several shoots for the magazine, including one in the middle of the night on the streets of Paris, scheduled such in order to use haute couture clothing before the couture shows even finished. A detail that may go missed by non-fashion press is that the 35-year-old Constant, operating a pro camera for the first time, in his first feature-length film, achieves a fluid consistency and sharp clarity of focus. He gets fashion.
Roitfeld says she’s not interested in the girl next door, which distinguishes her from the “get-it-for-less, warts-and-all” approach to style that dominates in magazines like Cosmo and Glamour (whose print runs far exceed those of Vogue‘s). Her power is in creating fantasies. In Mademoiselle C, one of those photographic dreamscapes involves a nearly nude model licking viscous white liquid off a mirror. Such images are rebellions against her bourgeois Parisian background, Roitfeld says. Viewers may not fully understand the scenarios she concocts with photographers, but by the end of the film, they will be inevitably drawn into the Parisian sprite’s kinky dreams.